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Why is Google talking about design so much?

User experience is suddenly all the rage in Mountain View. Has a data-driven giant turned over a new leaf?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

Everywhere you turn, it seems Google is talking about design.

Its Official Gmail Blog, for example, has long been the playground of its product managers and engineers. But lately, the titles in the bylines have contained curious words like "user" and "experience."

Is this the Google I know?

The truth is, it's not -- and that's exactly why we're suddenly seeing lengthy posts about the design of navigation and information density management.

Google has long been the company of choice for software developers and engineers. Data is the name of the game, and unremarkable utility is the way to get there. Occasionally complicated, not always natural, often inelegant but always able -- that has been the Google way, with its search home page leading the charge from day one.

(See: "Data, Not Design, Is King in the Age of Google" in the New York Times and "Goodbye, Google," former design chief Douglas Bowman's parting words in 2009. Also, this lovely Q&A in Businessweek with Irene Au.)

But lately, UI and UX -- user interface and user experience -- have been all the rage. The popularity of Apple has put the discipline at the forefront. Microsoft's Metro interface is giving an old company a new face.

Google for many years has been restrained in its changes, but lately the company has loosened that self-restraint with a new look that spans its many web-based applications, from Blogger to Gmail. New fonts, fixed navigation bars, an altogether new aesthetic -- the company's marquee products are almost unrecognizable in some ways.

Redesigns are hardly a new concept on the web, of course. Sometimes they are done to solve a problem, sometimes they are taken on to merely keep things fresh. Subtle, evolutionary change is the best, but an occasional revolutionary one is hard to resist.

Yet Google has, for a long time. Has something changed in Mountain View? I don't know; I'm just an end user. I'm loathe to attribute this to the return of Larry Page, but sometimes change begets more change. Whatever it is, I welcome it -- just as long as they do it as much as they talk about it.

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